Nurturing Resilience

Raising children to be competent and caring.

Halloween Treats Teach Children to Overeat

Halloween is one of many times eating is made into a competition for kids.

Okay, I’ll admit it, I loved Halloween growing up. But then most of us kids in the 60s and 70s didn’t get huge treat bags at every birthday party we attended, or endless doses of sugar for Easter, Christmas, Valentines day, and dozens of events in between. We were also more active, having to at least walk ourselves to school on November 1st, with our bag of Halloween treats in our hands.

I think it's time we did away with the gorge fest we call Halloween, or at least the candy part. The competition to see who collects the most candy may not be every parent’s benchmark of a successful child, but for many children hoarding food is part of a larger set of behaviors that have turned eating into a competition. Sadly, it’s parents who have put kids at risk of obesity. While I seldom blame parents for their children’s problems, in this case, we caregivers have to accept responsibility for the way we disadvantage our children when we make it possible for them to overeat. Too often we tell kids to ignore their bodies and eat when we want them to eat or reward them for overeating.

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I was recently presenting to a group of childcare workers who look after large childcare centres for children ages two to five. They tell remarkable stories of parents being very concerned about whether their child has eaten during the day, even calling to be sure the child finished their lunch. It’s an odd thing to worry about because regardless of the answer they get from the childcare workers, parents still make their children eat their dinner when they get home.

Wouldn’t it be refreshing if parents asked instead if their child was given the option to eat, and whether the child ate when, and only when, she was actually hungry? What is it about our kids eating that so many parents stake their identity on as a successful parent?

I also worked recently with the staff of a residential summer camp who had decided to change the way they provided food to children. No longer did children have to eat. They had to sit down at the dinner table and participate in conversation, but food could be put aside for later if the child wasn’t hungry.

It is amazing that more families don’t do the same. It makes me sad to sit beside a family in a restaurant, or in my own home when we host a party, and hear parents congratulate a child on finishing his plate. Why is stuffing yourself full, whether you are hungry or not, an accomplishment?

Let’s start again. Let’s take the competition out of eating. How about we tell our children, “I’m so proud of you, you ate until you were full, and then stopped.” Or even better, “I’m so proud of you. You weren’t hungry so you told me that you didn’t want to eat right now.” For many parents, this would drive them crazy.

But wait, what if we used such moments to help teach children the right attitude towards food. What if we kept a box of plastic wrap in our kitchens and let a child wrap up his dinner and have it later as a bedtime snack? How much healthier would our children be if they could exercise some control over their little bodies and eat when they were hungry? But don’t forget the dessert. After all, I’m not trying to be a total zealot about this. A dessert is fine, in moderation. The packing up dinner strategy is also great with dessert. A child who knows that his portion of the chocolate cake is going to be carefully put aside for him to have later (and not eaten by his greedy older sibling) will often be happy to leave the table full, but not uncomfortably stuffed, and have that delicious treat before bed.

Not hungry at bedtime? The little fella would prefer a piece of fruit or a bowl of cereal? That’s fine. Why not have the cake for breakfast? It may sound odd, but it is a wonderful strategy that removes a child’s anxiety about food. Most kids will relish the idea of chocolate cake for breakfast once or twice, but very few will want to eat that every day.

The pattern I’m promoting is as follows:

  • Ask children to pay attention to their bodies. Ask them how full they are. Even young children can tell you if they are a little full, or stuffed. Wait before offering more food. It can take a while until our bodies tell our brains we’ve had enough.
  • Encourage children to eat when they are hungry and make good food available. Our bodies are remarkably good at telling us what they need. As long as salt and sugar don’t trick them, children will actually have cravings for healthy food when it’s made available.
  • Create a no stress environment where good food is available when a child is ready to eat, no matter the time of day. Don’t worry if they are eating the wrong food at the wrong time of day. There is no such thing as the right meal.
  • Make the treats available too, but never as a reward for finishing dinner, or as a treat after exercise or a reward for having done something exceptional.

While we all scream about the problems of obesity, there’s no getting around the fact that adults have a lot of control over what a child eats. We stock the fridge. We cook the dinners. We make their lunches, or give them money to buy pop and chips at the corner store. And we either make them finish their plates, or put good food aside for when they are hungry.

No child starves himself, unless he has an eating disorder, and that is exceedingly rare in younger children, and uncommon among children who are allowed to exercise control over aspects of their lives, including food.

This Halloween, if you are going to send your child out, perhaps you want to focus less on the competition to get the most treats and instead help the child identify their favourites, and give the rest away. You may want to increase their activity levels in the days to come (it will help burn off the excess energy spurred by a sugary diet too), and you may want to simply give them the message the candy is there when they want it. No need to rush to eat it all now. Store it away from the child’s bedroom, but let them know it’s there for later.

If we are going to tackle obesity, we need new ways of thinking about food. We need to disconnect food from emotional gratification. We adults have a lot of work to do. We are doing our children a horrible disservice if we don’t prepare them for a life of healthy eating.

We may not be able to do away with all the high calorie traditions we exposed kids to, but we can at least give them the resilience to make better decisions about food. The next time your child says, “I’m not hungry,” celebrate, pack the dinner away in the fridge, and take that very smart child on your knee and read, or go for a walk, or do something special with her. A child who is clever enough to know what her body is telling her, and in control enough to tell an adult what she needs and doesn’t need, is a child who is much more likely to have the skills to cope with other life challenges too.

Now you’ll have to excuse me. There is a knock at the door and some trick or treaters to scare.

Michael Ungar, Ph.D., is a family therapist, a researcher at Dalhousie University, and the author of The We Generation: Raising Socially Responsible Kids.

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